A Southern Baptist often hears something like “Brother Bill and Sister Susan are going to give their testimony tonight.” This semi-formal autobiographical account details the events leading up to a once-in-a-lifetime moment (known as ‘getting saved’) at which an individual confesses one’s sinful state and pledges to live for God, forever sealing one’s Heavenly destiny.
A poorly constructed testimony focuses overwhelmingly on the pre-conversion lifestyle. The message is, “Look how bad I was then, but just look at how good I am now.” A more useful reflection emphasizes God’s hand continually at work in one’s life.
The former kind of account can leave the audience without hope. It’s difficult for the listener to see himself reflected in the story. The particular grace of conversion is so personalized that it’s hard to relate. The latter sort reveals a simple sinner begging God’s mercy each day, allowing the listeners to understand that they may have a chance just yet.
Catholics may have deeper moments of conversion and share them at times, but we don’t see salvation itself as a one-and-done instance in our life. However, we can still learn something from our evangelical brethren in their eager determination to ‘share their testimony’. For example, one can think of something that was once a regular part of one’s lifestyle and is now used only to show the effects of grace received.
The fifth chapter of St. John’s gospel tells of a crippled man by the pool of Bethsaida. The story goes that whenever the waters were stirred up, whoever got in first was healed of his illness. For thirty-eight years, this pitiable man tried to get in but with no luck: no one could help until Christ showed up.
After our Lord asks him if he wishes to be made whole, like many of us, he doesn’t just say “yes” and trust in the divine plan to provide. Instead, he immediately tells Jesus what he needs to be healed and how it is to be done. Without giving any evidence that He noted the man’s instruction, our Lord simply responds, “Arise, take up thy bed, and walk.”
Strange. Why didn’t He just say, “Arise. Walk.”? This man had been lying next to this pool for longer than the whole of Christ’s earthly life, and he’s commanded to take up the very thing that will only serve as a reminder of the tantalizing feeling of being so close to restoration but denied each time! This bed is what he lay on while others passed him day after day, having no option but to watch them obtain what he so long had longed for.
Jesus wasn’t teaching the man to be an eco-friendly inhabitant of the shared earth by instilling a “leave-no-trace” policy in Bethsaida. He wasn’t concerned about the cripple’s carbon footprint. Instead, He knew that this would be what grabs people’s attention. This bed was the tool that the former lame man would use to spread the Gospel.
No sooner did he start walking before he was rebuked for carrying something for such a distance on the Sabbath. The scoffers didn’t take it well, but the message was clear: Jesus heals. Without carrying his bed, no one would have noticed; the story would not have spread.
The lame man’s bed didn’t bear him down anymore, and neither does our forgiven past. It still may be a part of our story, but it is in no way the climax. We don’t obsessively dwell on it, because what Jesus has done and continues to do is the focus. It is from Him that we have received healing, and it is for Him that we now walk, as we take up our bed.
Painting: Pieter Aertsen, The Healing of the Cripple of Bethesda